Its roots go back almost 250 years to the Second Continental Congress. Americans systematically classify it as their preferred federal agency, and with a workforce of more than half a million scattered across the country, it employs more people than any government entity outside the military.
But as Washington begins fighting for the next round of coronavirus relief funds, the United States Postal Service, many with the most familiar face of the federal government, has improbably landed in the center of one of the political conflicts the bitter ones on who should be saved, and at what cost.
The future of mail may be at stake.
Post chiefs and their allies have launched unusually blunt calls for support in recent weeks, running advertisements on President Trump’s favorite Fox News programs and an urgent account of how the pandemic has had a “devastating effect” on the US postal service. Without a financial rescue from Congress, they warned, an agency that operates normally without taxpayer funds could run out of money by the end of September, raising fears of bankruptcy and disruption of regular deliveries for millions of Americans. .
But after nearly reaching a bipartisan multi-billion dollar bailout in the latest coronavirus bailout in late March, Republicans and Democrats sharply disagreed on whether to provide a lifeline. Now, the fight for the future of the postal service has spread on the campaign trail, increasingly marked by deep disagreements over labor rights, the role of government against private enterprise in providing basic services and access to voting.
On the one hand, President Trump and his Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin widely viewed the worsening of the agency’s results as a problem on its own initiative.
“The postal service is a joke,” Trump said recently, announcing that he would not support any additional financial support for the agency unless he increased package rates by 400%. The dramatic increase, which most independent analysts say would ultimately hurt the postal service, appears to be aimed primarily at Amazon, whose general manager Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, and which Trump considers a sworn enemy.
It was the White House that intervened in March, ending a bipartisan plan to provide $ 13 billion to the postal service. And administration officials have made it clear that they will not sign any financial support – whether in the form of a loan or direct funding – unless the postal service agrees to raise rates, labor concessions. and other changes that would reduce the agency’s footprint, potentially save money and benefit private competitors like FedEx and UPS.
Democrats, for their part, have positioned themselves as protectors of the agency, joined by large retailers like Amazon and CVS who rely on the postal service to deliver millions of packages a year at low prices. In the House, they are preparing to introduce a massive relief bill that would give the agency much of what it asked for, including direct funding of $ 25 billion plus additional measures. debt relief.
“We have to fight for the post office,” President Nancy Pelosi of California said on Thursday, outlining the outlines of the fledgling struggle.
“Their objective has always been to privatize, to make a profit from the postal service for private purposes,” added Ms Pelosi, referring to the Republicans. “We want the postal service to be in the public interest, not a special interest.”
In many ways, the position is natural for Democrats. The postal service has been a growth engine for the black middle class and is one of the last strongholds of organized labor in the country, two critical constituencies for the modern Democratic Party. An operational postal service is also a prerequisite for establishing a national mail-in ballot program for the fall election, a priority for Democrats which some Republicans oppose.
But the issue has not always been resolved in a partisan fashion. Congressional Republicans representing rural areas where daily mail is an economic and medical lifeline have been among the agency’s biggest supporters, and they could face political consequences by adopting the president’s position.
But in Alaska, mail is a vital commodity, delivering goods to remote areas that commercial delivery companies don’t serve. In a recent teleconference with voters, Sullivan said he would defend the postal service from any potential cuts.
“It is a lifeline for so many of our communities,” he said. “We are the advocates of all of these programs because you cannot be treated differently just because you are American and you live in a village with no roads. “
With the pandemic unfolding in the heat of the election and Mr. Trump largely defining his party’s position, Democrats are increasingly believing that the issue could give them political advantage. Particularly at a time when Americans trapped in their homes have become hyper-aware of their addiction to mail, public polls suggest that bipartisan majorities are in favor of a bailout deal and may even punish lawmakers who oppose it.
Richard Trumka, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said that the ubiquity of the postal service, especially in rural America, means that both sides have traditionally had a vested interest in maintaining its financial stability.
“The postal service is like social security – it is appreciated by all,” said Mr. Trumka in an interview. “If the president or anyone else is seen trying to weaken or eliminate postal services, they will pay a huge political price. “
In a recent email explosion, Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said that Republicans were trying to “dismantle” the postal service and, with it, the jobs of hundreds of thousands of postal workers, as well as links between rural areas. , the poor and tribal areas of the economy.
Joseph R. Biden Jr., the former vice-president and presumed candidate for the Democratic presidency, channeled the views of many in his party last month when he suggested that Mr. Trump was trying to bankrupt the postal service to prevent vote by vote. mail programs and sabotage of the November elections. Trump said large-scale voting by mail would lead to a spike in participation that would hurt his party, saying last month that it “doesn’t work well for Republicans. “
The postal service was plagued by financial problems long before the Covid-19 pandemic, having lost billions of dollars a year in the past decade, and bipartisan reform proposals have toured Congress for years. The agency, which earns money on the sale of postal and other products whose popularity has declined since the advent of email and online billing, has not counted on taxpayer funding for years. decades, but instead issued debts as losses increased.
Unlike a private company, it does not have the ability to downsize to cut costs, and Congress demanded that it prefinance an employee health benefits program have fueled billions of dollars in debt.
But the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the problems of the postal service. Even though parcel deliveries to Americans at home have increased significantly, the total volume of mail is down by about a third. The agency predicts that these numbers could continue to drop, resulting in a loss of $ 23 billion over the next 18 months.
Mnuchin has started preliminary talks with postal officials over the terms of a loan of up to $ 10 billion that the Treasury Department is authorized to make to the agency. Few details of the talks went public, but a task force led by Mr. Mnuchin in 2018 proposed that the postal service increase its rates, begin to divert more work to non-unionized outside contractors and essentially rent the space in the country’s mailboxes to postal services private delivery.
Democrats and union leaders have argued that these changes would put the agency on the road to privatization. David C. Williams, Trump’s vice-chairman of the board of governors and former postal inspector general, was so uneasy about discussions with the Treasury Department that he resigned last month, concerned about the politicization of an organization that is not normally affected. out of partisanship, according to people familiar with his thinking.
The White House position has more and more vocal allies in Congress. Armed with a new report from the Government Accountability Office on the long-term structural challenges of the postal service, representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the main Republican of the House oversight committee, accused the Democrats of trying to leave the agency pick up mistakes that had nothing to do with the coronavirus crisis.
“Simply sending them more hard-earned taxpayer money will not solve their problems,” said Mr. Jordan.
Some other influential Republicans who supported a bailout appear to be backing down, accusing both the postal service and the Democrats of making the situation more serious than it is.
On Wednesday, Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson and chairman of the postal service oversight committee asked for a more detailed account of his finances. Johnson, who previously supported the allocation of funds to support the agency, said data received by his staff suggested that real revenues from mid-March to mid-April had declined by less than 6%. compared to the previous year.
“It was far from the 30% that U.S.P.S. was planning publicly, “wrote Johnson. “Although I have not yet received official data to confirm this, I understand that U.S.P.S. earnings have recently improved – so much so that April’s earnings were close to those of April 2019. “
Alan Rappeport contributed to the report. Kitty Bennett contributed to the research.